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I was on Facebook the other day, and someone made a joke about “being poked” (a way to draw someone’s attention on Facebook).  The person casually made the statement that it’s “better to be poked on Facebook than to be poked in prison.” Maybe 10 years ago, I would have laughed and said, “Yea man, you’re right about that.”  Five years ago, I would have given an uncomfortable chuckle.  But today, I was annoyed.  Not meaning to be the wet blanket of the party, but I simply told the brother that he needs to grow up and stop making light of a serious issue.

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Don’t ask me why I’ve changed over the years, because I’ve never been a prison inmate.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve thought more carefully about jokes like this and realized that for those who are affected by prison rape, the joke’s just not all that funny.  According to the  United States Department of Justice, over 70,000 male prison inmates are raped every year, roughly 1 in 20 men behind bars.  Women are also abused at an alarming rate, with many of the sexual assaults being committed by prison guards.  Prison rape not only traumatizes those who are affected, it leads to the spread of HIV and other venereal diseases throughout the African American community.  Many of those affected are young people and first time offenders, those who are more vulnerable than other inmates.

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I believe in being tough on crime, but blatant human rights violations like prison rape should not be part of the crime and punishment protocol.  Many prison rapes are allowed to occur by authorities who seem to believe that being sexually assaulted is simply part of the debt you must pay to society.  Several of the prisons with the highest rates of sexual assault are in the state of Texas, a place known for it’s disrespect for human and civil rights.

Black men are seven times more likely than white men to go to prison in their lifetime.  Therefore, black people are many times more likely to be affected by the spread of disease and dysfunction that comes from sexual abuse in prison.  I had a close relative who went to prison at a very early age, and he hasn’t been mentally balanced since being released.  Prison made him a worse human being than he was when he went in, which completely undermines the concept of rehabilitation.  Only God knows what happened to that 17-year old kid surrounded by much older, stronger and brutal men.   Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t laugh at the joke that was being made on Facebook.

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The way we treat our felons is a reflection of our values as a society.  Many of us send men and women off to prison under the assumption that they are not deserving of an ounce of dignity and that they’ve become less human than the rest of us.  Even the 13th amendment of the constitution, which bans slavery, says that it’s O.K. to enslave someone if they’ve been convicted of a crime.  But what we must remember is that some of these people are actually innocent of their crimes and only guilty of not being able to pay a good lawyer.  Also, even when we make mistakes, we don’t always deserve to be punished for an entire lifetime.   Given that America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, the truth is that almost any of us has a chance to end up behind bars.

When someone makes a joke about prison rape, don’t laugh.  Help that person get educated.  It’s time for all of us to grow up.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the book, “Black American Money.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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